The Character of Characters

I’ve been thinking about why we are affected by people who don’t exist. Even when characters are based on real people, the character is not actually a real person. And, in part at least, it was probably such “deception” that has caused Christians at various times to consider acting as sinful in itself. Those arguments are worth considering.

I want to set that aside for a moment to consider how we take those fictional people. The best actors and the best acting makes us believe that the actors are the people whom they portray. It happens comically sometimes when actors are called by their characters’ names in public. When someone has acted as a particular fictional person for a long time, or in a significant role, it can be hard to separate the person from the character.

But character has two meanings. We use it to mean portrayals of individuals in a story, their “characterization,” or “characteristics.” The portrayal can be more or less full, more or less rounded, more or less complete. So we may recognize characters who appear to be fully human. Or they may appear to be less than real, sort of two-dimensional. On the other hand, we use character as a judgment: does this person exhibit a “good” or “bad” character?

Characters on the screen are invented. They are given the external marks of some kind of person who plays a part in the story. But the characters’ character, so to speak, is something else. We judge both of them, but we judge them according to different standards. In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix is clearly excellent in his characterization. He inhabits the role as if he were really Arthur Fleck, and we believe him as that character.

At the same time, his character is clearly flawed, damaged and damaging. His character has been formed within the world of the film, and it’s been formed badly, tending toward the immoral and evil. Without at the moment examining the means by which we make judgments about good and evil character, we do in fact judge the well-rounded character of Arthur Fleck according to some standard of right and wrong.

But what really got me thinking about character was the third season of True Detective (on HBO, streaming through Amazon Prime with a subscription). I never saw the second season, because of so many negative reviews. But the first and third seasons are master classes in characterization. All, or nearly all, the characters are fully realized as they unfold slowly over the season. You believe you could easily meet one of them on the street.

The third season takes place over three time periods: 1980, 1990, and 2015. It revolves around the disappearance of two siblings, and the efforts of two detectives, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) to solve the crimes. But the season focuses closely on Hays and his disappearing memory due to some form of dementia. His entire life has been formed by the contours of the case. He and his future wife meet because of the case. She writes a book about it. His job prospects rise and fall as a result of his work. His relationships with his kids is impacted by what happened to the siblings in the case.

It’s hard to describe without spoilers, or without watching, but the Wayne Hays’ character is formed, for better and worse, by the central event of his life. Obviously, most of us are not detectives trying to solve a high-profile case. But by means of Wayne Hays’ specific characterization, the general effect of the moments of our own lives comes into focus. We examine our lives in the light of central and shattering events. We let the light of Wayne Hays’ marriage and fatherhood shine on our own marriages and parenting.

How did we get to the places where we are? What choices do we make that have inestimable effects on our futures? What regrets will we have? What might we have done differently if we had had other or better knowledge? What will lodge itself in our memories and what will disappear, perhaps to be remembered by someone else?

All of this—the shaping of Hays’ (and others’) character through various events and choices they make in response to those events—mirrors, if not the specifics, then the general way that our own character is formed. The Greek word “character,” in fact, comes from a verb that means “to engrave.” There is a marking out of certain shapes, letters, or pictures. The “engraving” of our selves happens in various ways. Some of the marking out is intentional and some of it is accidental or incidental. But all of our own choices and the choices of others with whom we interact become the edges and crevices and basins and bulges in the mold that shapes the sort of people we become.

This, I think, is what draws us into well-told stories and causes us to identify and relate to people who don’t exist. We may to some extent be shaped by fictional characters or stories, if they embody ideals to which we aspire. But more than that, fictional characters allow us to measure and judge our own selves in the pictures they hold out to us. If they are badly characterized, then we will not be able to see ourselves in those pictures. But if they are well-characterized, then they can show us true things, things we might not see in any other way—things that might mark out who we are, who we’d like to be, and who we can be.